Inside This Issue - Opinion
Remembering the legacy of Harry Levin
July 16th, 2012
by David Pinto
Remember the name Happy Harry? Probably not. Six years after Walgreens acquired Delaware’s leading drug chain, the Happy Harry’s logo has disappeared, never to be seen again. Twenty-four years after Harry Levin, Happy Harry’s founder and namesake, passed away, only the very few remember him — and only the very lucky could claim to have known him.
Happily, however, he’s still remembered in some quarters. Most recently, Delaware Today, that state’s monthly magazine, named Harry Levin one of the 50 most influential Delawareans in the last half-century.
In documenting Levin’s career the magazine noted that he was the first person in the state to embrace the idea of discounting, challenging the prevailing fair trade laws by asking a simple question: Why have a standard retail price?
It was not am empty question. Levin believed that he could make a profit by selling merchandise at prices below those of the competition. To prove it, in 1962 he opened his first store, Discount Center, in North Wilmington. In doing so, he was forced into competition with three established drug stores in the neighborhood, each certain that the intruder would quickly go out of business.
Additionally, many major branded goods suppliers sued Levin for violating existing fair trade laws. Rather than backing down, Levin used the suits to his advantage by posting the details at the store’s cash register. As a result, customers came to applaud Levin for standing up for their interests.
Levin’s fledgling operation grew slowly but steadily. Between 1962 and 1986 he opened 17 stores. With his third opening, he changed the name to Happy Harry’s.
The tribute to Levin in Delaware Today was written by his son Alan, who took over Happy Harry’s after his father died, building it into the state’s leading retail business before selling the company, which had grown to 76 stores, to Walgreens in 2006.
Writing about his father, Levin noted that “he had an innate ability to understand people and what they wanted, especially what Delawareans wanted. He could spot a trend and run with it. He had that great smile. He was happiest when he was ringing the register.”
As was true of many father-son relationships in chain drug retailing as the industry developed during the last half-century, Alan Levin and his dad were frequently at odds, mostly over generational issues. Where the younger Levin wanted to pursue a career in politics and the law, his father was also calling him back into the business “just for a while,” while he was recuperating from one of the frequent illnesses that constantly plagued him physically. Then came an illness he couldn’t overcome, and, at Harry’s passing in 1987, his son took control of the drug chain.
“The funny thing about my dad,” remembers Levin, “is that he was voted least likely to succeed by his class at Wilmington High School. He always thought that was a kick. But he understood Delawareans. That was his universe.”
Twenty-five years after his father’s death, Levin still speaks of him often, his stories replete with respect, love, frustration and, at times, undisguised mystification at some of the decisions his father made, especially when those decisions involved people. In the end, however, he’s certain of one thing: “There was never a merchant like him before, and I don’t think there will ever be a merchant like him again.”
Levin is wrong there. Truth is, the chain drug industry was built by merchants like Levin, retailers who refused to follow the rules, who cared about the customer, who thought first about offering a compelling product and only secondarily about making money. Those closest to chain drug retailing over the years can easily tick off the legendary names: C.R. Walgreen, Bud Hook, Bob Begley, Sam Skaggs, Banks Kerr, Henry Panasci, Bud Fantle, Joe Long, Joe Genovese, Jack Robinson, Alex Grass, Sydney Besthoff, Jim Harrison, Adolph Weinberger, Reggie LaVerdiere. The list is endless. Each launched or built a drug chain by disregarding the existing rules and putting the customer first.
Indeed, every state list of influential people would, if caringly and thoughtfully compiled, include the name of at least one chain drug industry founder.
Sadly, in an industry increasingly concerned about tomorrow and less interested in yesterday, these names have been largely forgotten, though Alan Levin points out that, 24 years after his death, not a day goes by that someone doesn’t approach him to talk about his dad and relate stories about how special he was. “For him to be remembered so fondly by the community he served is far more special than any memories the industry retains,” says Levin.
Indeed, only one person exists today in the chain drug store community who both knows and cares about how this industry was assembled. That person is Jim Whitman, senior vice president at the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. Whitman is forever finding ways for the industry to honor its past. Most recently, he invited Greg Young to the association’s Annual Meeting to cheer as the award named for his grandfather, Robert Begley, was presented to retiring chain drug executive Andy Giancamilli.
As long as Whitman remains involved, the chain drug industry’s colorful and productive history will never be ignored. The hope here is that he remains at his post for a long time to come.